ASEE Prism Magazine - October 2002
Facing The Problem
All The RIght Moves
Natural Borne Killers
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Teaching Toolbox

The Alma Mater Matters

Ten million dollars can do a lot for a student body. At Brooklyn Technical High School, the payoff from such generous alumni gifts includes a near 100 percent college entrance rate and university-level class projects.

CARETECH, the alumni-driven monetary campaign designed to maintain Brooklyn Tech's 75 years of excellence, was founded in 1999 with the help of private industry grants and funding from New York City's Board of Education.

The generous alumni fund enables teachers to shape and update coursework and provides mentors from private businesses, colleges, and universities to work closely with the students. CARETECH has formed strong ties with Polytechnic University over the past few years, and next spring, Matt Mandery, project director and former principal of the school, expects that Brooklyn Tech students will be offered a course in construction management at the university. “This is not something that a university could do with a typical school, but our students have the engineering background to do well in a college course.” To date, the alumni campaign has established 15 ongoing programs at Brooklyn Tech, including research opportunities and paid internships in private industry.

One of CARETECH's programs is a senior civil engineering course in which student teams complete their senior design projects, starting with a feasibility study and progressing to a 3-D model and final report. This past year, says teacher Issac Honor, students developed seven different projects, including a multi-level parking facility, a monorail for a park across the street from the school, a handball court, and a skate park. “We used to do a pedestrian bridge, but student feedback showed that while the bridge was good, they wanted to do something on their own,” says Honor. “Now there is room for students to come up with new ideas for their own projects. They can expand on an existing idea, too, but they're really going to have to embellish it and take it to another level.”

Students in the course are linked with engineering mentors from such supporting agencies as the New York City Technical College and the city's Department of Transportation, who teach them everything from how to calculate support loads to how to get approval from a City Parks committee to move a tree.

Brooklyn Tech also recently revamped a freshman design course to give students more hands-on experience. The result: first-year high schoolers are creating pop-up books and designing chairs made out of corrugated cardboard that can withstand 150 pounds. “The freshman program is really unique because students that age aren't usually given the opportunity to give feedback or express themselves,” says Honor. “So what we end up with are projects that are exciting and that teach the kids about things like tension and compression, but aren't too technically boring.”

Honor also points out that the projects available to freshmen are gender neutral. “We're constructing a chair or a book, something that everybody uses and something that aesthetics plays a role in,” he says. “Engineering is not a ‘guy thing,' it's not all about cars and boats and legos. There's a lot of opportunity for women of all races in technology careers,” Honor continues. “We just have to be able to attract females into engineering at an early age, or we're going to lose them to other fields.” And the success of the freshman design course is just one of the indicators of CARETECH's influence on Brooklyn Tech.

“Through CARETECH, we wanted not just to donate money sporadically to the school but to have the school renew itself through ways like changing the curriculum and providing professional development,” says Mandery. “For most of the alumni (who give money to CARETECH), they feel that going to Brooklyn Tech was their pivotal educational experience,” explains Mike Weiss, who taught at his alma mater for 27 years and now chairs the alumni association. “It's a feeling like many people have with their college.”

Little wonder. Brooklyn Tech is one of three New York City public high schools that requires competitive examination for admission. And of those three, it is the only school to offer a choice of majors during the junior and senior years. Fifteen of the 16 majors are in engineering, science, or technology. Last year, Brooklyn Tech boasted 4,200 students and 220 teachers, and the previous year, 98.4 percent of the senior graduates entered four-year colleges.

“The history of Tech is preparing young people who are upwardly mobile, particularly in New York City where the students may come from diverse cultural groups and with blue-collar backgrounds,” says Weiss. “Some of them are the first in their family to go on to college.”


and the Band Plays On

You would think that most University of California-Berkeley engineering students see enough of each other in class, at the library, or working on group projects. But a number of them spend an extra 10 to 20 hours a week together in practice. While the College of Engineering accounts for just 13 percent of the undergraduate student body, its students make up almost half of the Bears on the football field. But only at halftime.

Forty-six percent of engineering majors at UC Berkeley were members of the Cal Band last year, a high-stepping, school-spirited tradition that dates back over 100 years. And although auditions for the 2002-2003 troupe had not been completed by press time, director Bob Calonico says that he's “assuming we'll have a similar percentage of engineering students this fall.” Why such a high number? It could be that their mathematically grounded minds help engineers count out the rhythm and stay in step. “I think that there are so many engineering students in the Cal Band because music is very mathematical,” says Amy Ng, a junior chemical engineering student who plays the piccolo. “So many aspects of music are scientific. I believe that studies show a musical background has an effect on a student's ability to learn math,” she continues.

Or it could be that engineering students are forced to budget their time wisely with all the requirements they're expected to meet—and the mandates of this extra-curricular activity seem a little more bearable to engineering students. Ng, a two-season veteran of Berkeley's marching band, takes even more time out of her schedule than most; she is one of only five members serving on the musical activities committee that conducts additional performances by the Straw Hat Band and plans road trips, among other tasks.

But for this busy young woman, the rigors of Cal Band pale in comparison to the benefits.”The best part of being in the Cal Band is the social aspect,” says Ng. “Especially with the demands of school, the Cal Band allows us a release from our studies and gives us a chance to play music and make friends.”


Retooling Rural Hospitals

Summertime, and the livin' is easy. This may be true for some students when school lets out, but at the University of Memphis, biomedical engineering professor Robert Malkin has created an intense, hands-on program that challenges students to use their education and experience to improve health conditions and provide much needed medical tools to developing countries. The result: Two undergraduate engineering students spent their summer at a Nicaraguan hospital repairing medical equipment, installing new machines and training local healthcare providers how to use the tools properly.

In the fall of 2001, with the University of Memphis behind him, Malkin chartered and incorporated Engineering World Health, a nonprofit organization that sends students and professionals to developing countries to help with the technical aspect of healthcare. Malkin, whose background is in electrical and mechanical engineering, and his colleague Mohammad Kiani at the University of Tennessee, found that the biomedical engineering field offered no real service learning opportunities. “For years, we've been wanting to do more in service,” says Malkin, “but there was nothing available for biomedical engineers. We wanted to do it and the students wanted to do it.”

Since its inception last fall, EWH has adopted the Children's Hospital in Managua, Nicaragua, and its goal is to send graduate students or professionals to the hospital twice during the school year. Students at the institute endure a rigorous four- or five-week training in Memphis that includes language immersion and political and social studies of Nicaragua. The remaining four weeks of the program are spent in the Latin American country. This combination provides almost year-round coverage in Managua, and the EWH program is likely to expand to other cities soon, starting with Leone, Nicaragua, and reaching to locations in Bolivia, Haiti, and Brazil within the next two years.

The Summer Institute is open to chemistry, engineering, and physics majors from all over the country—the pair that returned from the inaugural trip in August were studying at the University of Southern California and Case Western Reserve, respectively. But the real benefactors of EWH are not the students; they are the patients at Children's Hospital.

“Most of the doctors there were trained in part in the United States, so they know exactly what they're missing. But most importantly,” says Malkin, “the patients and their parents know, just by seeing the machines that are hooked up to their bodies, and they have an immediate and very deep appreciation for what we're doing.”


Erin Drenning is an associate editor of Prism.
She can be reached at
Barbara Mathias-Riegel is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.